The June 25th decision by the Israeli government to suspend the agreement to create a pluralistic prayer space at the Western Wall could not have been more poorly timed. Coinciding with a visit of American Jewish leaders to Israel and coupled with the government’s decision to further a bill tightening regulations on Jewish conversions, the message of disrespect, disregard, and rejection was thus maximized – as was the response.
Rabbi Rick Jacobs of the Union for Reform Judaism cancelled a planned dinner with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, along with Rabbi Steve Wernick, CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, called the decision a “betrayal.” Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America called the move “a direct insult.” The outrage even included this line from Michael Siegel, the chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel: “Support for Israel does not necessarily mean support for the Israeli government.”
These leaders deserve appreciation and an enthusiastic kol hakavod for the backbone they displayed. And the deployment of the last line is particularly striking, because it reflects the stance that pro-Israel, pro-peace groups like Americans for Peace Now have long been urging – and one that leaders in the American Jewish community have frequently resisted.
These leaders of the American Jewish community have collectively made a clear statement, beyond their specific criticism of the Israeli government’s decision regarding the Western Wall. They have exhibited a clear willingness to harshly criticize Prime Minister Netanyahu and his government when they recognize that its actions are harmful to the Jewish people, the state of Israel, and the relationship between the two.
American Jews should ask of these same leaders that a similar outspokenness be applied to Israel’s fifty-year occupation and the continued expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Just as the issue of prayer at the Western Wall threatens to divide the Jewish people, settlement expansion and the occupation that it entrenches pose an existential threat to the Zionist dream of a democratic state of Israel as a secure homeland for the Jewish people. This too is a detrimental and ever-more divisive issue, both within the American Jewish community and between the U.S. and Israeli Jewish communities.
This is not to suggest that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a two-sided one. Or that Palestinians don’t deserve plenty of blame, or that condemnations of Palestinian terrorism and other actions that prevent peace should be any less frequent or severe. The issue is that settlements and the occupation damage Israel in a multitude of ways. Regardless of what the Palestinians do, the Israeli government should end settlement expansion and work towards ending the occupation for Israel’s sake.
American Jewish leaders, who represent a community that cares deeply about Israel’s interests, must recognize the threat that occupation and settlement expansion pose to Israel’s future. A government is not the same thing as a country, and one can support the latter while being intensely critical of the former. If this is a mantra that American Jewish leaders are now prepared to adopt, they will become – in the realms of both prayer and peace – a supremely helpful force for Jews in the U.S. and Israel.